18. "Write for your own time, or your generation exclusively" - Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘To a Young Writer’
J.C.O had a few really insiring tidbits of advice in her letter ‘To A Young Writer’ (excerpts can be found here). That’s not hard to imagine. According to her Wikipedia page, she’s been publishing since 1962, and has more than 40 novels to her name. And that’s not including short stories and other writing—look at this bibliography and tell me you’re not impressed.
She’s accomplished. And she has a lot of sage wisdom to pass on to young writers. So I’m taking it. And I’m starting here: with advice piece #18 “write for your own time, or your generation extensively”
I’ve known I’ve wanted to write a book for some time. Let’s say 15 years. For most of those I didn’t know what I wanted to write—or write about—though. Only in the last year or so, as the vision of taking some time off from “work” to “write” materialized did I start to examine old lists and make new lists of ideas that could one day find themselves into my first book. And this was still before it was even going to necessarily be a fiction novel.
The idea I settled with is one that came from about four years ago. I was working at a startup that was seeing some success and something triggered this parallel thought in me of Almost Famous, where a journalist follows a rock band itself on the cusp of success and sees just how that success can provide this fruitful tension for real character change, examination, or clash. That this idea of “success”, some thing I’ve wondered at times if it’s an American phenomenon or not, brings to the forefront a question of morals, attitudes, relations and so much more. Said another way, it’s ripe for a storyteller.
And that’s what drew me to the idea at first. I sat with it for a while. And I sat with other ideas for a while, some that I still hold onto should there be a book two or three or seventeen. But I think what put me over the edge on this idea—this millennial-led startup thriving with a very millennial-app—was how pertinent it seemed to today. It gave me grounds on which to address things like the way technology alters our experience, sexism in the workplace, centralization vs de-, censorship, and the list goes on. But these very NOW problems that I enjoy talking about and weighing out in my head. And that I enjoy our culture’s collective conversations of; even when it ends in frustration of what I perceive to be close-mindedness.
So while I do think there are elements of this story that stay evergreen: the effects of success and fame on the ego, for instance….The other parts? They seem very 2018.
I’ll give you an example:
The app at the center of this story provides crowd-sourced recommendations on what to do around cities. A user could theoretically put anything in there. So if one user (as I allude to in the book) puts a “pin” or flag somewhere where one could procure illegal drugs, underground gambling, or maybe something as other-person-ally harmful as illegal prostitution, should that be allowed on the app? The co-founders must discuss this. They don’t like what it stands for or what it says about their app, but are they ready to be censors? What would get censored and what would not? And what does this mean for an uncertain future of your user base?
How about another one?
If a startup is founded by two women and one man, is it a female-founded company? Does it matter? What are the ramifications one way or another?
This is at play in the book as I see it at play in my generation and the business leaders, culture setters, deep thinkers, etc…of the day. And so, as Oates, said, I am writing for my generation. Hoping to examine, though surely not solve, issues of importance and meaning. And maybe to see a readerbase (hopefully!) take to the book as an examination of these times.